Toni Preckwinkle didn't win the Cook County Board presidency by beating Todd Stroger in February. She still has to beat a Republican. Yeah, I know. In Cook County? His name is Roger Keats and he’s a former four-term state senator from the North Shore. We called him at his Wilmette home to talk about taxes, health care and why he thinks he’s the real reformer.
Q: Do you want to take the sales tax rate back 3/4s of a percent?
A: I do, but in a high tax, high regulatory, high corruption county, we need to do more than just lower the sales tax. Just look at this fight over property taxes now. Why do you think Joe Berrios and Mike Madigan don't want this to come out?
Q: The tax raised $440 million. How would you replace that? Or what would you cut to make up for the loss in revenue?
A: One third of the entire budget is health care. John Stroger had a rule that “This is a public hospital. We don't bill.” Let’s say you’re on the Eisenhower Expressway, but you’re employed, you have health insurance.They bring you to the closest hospital, it’s Stroger. They don't bill you. If you were from Lake County or DuPage County, they don’t bill you. That easily could be $100 million, $200 million.
Q: People who can afford it or are outside Cook County should be billed at the hospital?
A: Absolutely. And the county, they estimate over a third of all the people who come to the county hospital have insurance. People have this image that everyone who comes to the county hospital facilities are deadbeats. That’s not true at all.
Q: What else?
A: About 80 percent of all the expenses of the county are personnel. The average county employee makes more than the average private sector employee, has better benefits and has a better pension. And then, of course, has a job where they're almost guaranteed for life. That is unreasonable. I've suggested one of the things for the pensions is that we go to 403(B) for all the new employees, and anyone who's not vested in the existing pension plan, you won’t be vested.
Q: You also want to open more clinics around the county, right?
A: You walk in an emergency room with the sniffles, it costs us $1,000. If you walk into a clinic with the sniffles, it's $75 to $150. What I want to do is expand the number of clinics, and then we assign people who receive their health care from the government to a clinic. The clinic is responsible for making sure they get their shots, making sure the kids are getting their annual exam. They have your health record. If they start showing up at Stroger, you say, “Excuse me, you're assigned to such and such a clinic, you're not an emergency. Here's the bus that will get you there.”
Q: If you win, you’ll be the first Republican to win this office since 1966.
A: Right, Dick Ogilvie.
Q: What would be the advantages of having a two-party system in Cook County?
A: I'll actually reduce the sales tax. I will actually make some changes. People say there's no difference between the parties. If I'm elected president of the Cook County Board, the budget for 2011 is going to be smaller than the budget for 2010. I’m going to terminate 150 of the political appointees and replace them with 25 assistant inspector generals. You need someone who is not part of the system. I'm not an insider. Nothing against Toni Preckwinkle, but her and the other alderman, the other county board members, Joe Berrios, Mike Madigan, they all support each other. She basically is the candidate of the status quo. Do you want status quo in Cook County and Illinois?